May 5th, 2010
02:50 PM ET

Security Brief: Terror Watch List folks who seek guns get approved, GAO says

Suspects on the government's Terror Watch List attempted to buy firearms or explosives 1,228 times in the past six years and won government approval in the vast majority of cases, according to a government report.

In 1,119 cases - 91 percent of all the requests - the government granted approval for the persons to proceed with the purchase, according to the General Accountability Office.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, disclosed the updated figures Wednesday at a hearing on the so-called "Terror Gap," the name given to the ability of people on the watch list to buy weapons. "This loophole in our gun laws defies common sense and is effectively hanging out a welcome sign for terrorists to arm themselves," Sen. Lautenberg testified.

The Senate hearing on terrorists and guns was scheduled long before this past weekend's failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square. But the timing added to the sense of urgency. Congress will appear to have "blood on our hands" if a person carries out an attack with weapons purchased while he or she was on the watch list, said Rep. Peter King, R-New York, a sponsor of the bill.

But critics of the proposal say the bill may trample on rights of law-abiding Americans who have become entangled in the lengthy Terror Watch List.

The watch list consists of approximately 400,000 people, most of whom are not U.S. citizens, the director of the Terrorist Screening Center testified in December.

There have been numerous cases in which Americans with no known ties to terrorism have been placed on the list, most notably the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

"The evidence used to compile the watch list is often fragmentary and can be of varying degrees of credibility," Collins said. "It is not, in other words, the equivalent of a criminal history report."

One government report concluded about 35 percent of the people on the list were there "based on outdated information or material unrelated to terrorism," Collins said.

The "Terror Gap" bill would give the Attorney General the discretion to deny the transfer of a firearm when a background check reveals the purchaser is a known or suspected terrorist, and the Attorney General believes the person may use the weapon in connection with terrorism. The government would be allowed to approve of the sale if canceling it would tip off the suspect.

The bill also includes safeguards allowing people to appeal a denial, supporters say.

Guns have been used in two terrorist attacks in the United States in the past year: the Nov. 5, 2009, shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, in which a gunman killed 13 people and wounded 30 and on June 1, 2009, when a gunman killed one soldier and wounded another at a military recruiting office in Arkansas.

It is unclear whether the bill would have kept Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in the Times Square bombing attempt, from buying a weapon. Shahzad, who appears to have no criminal history, legally purchased a .9 mm gun, authorities say. The gun was found in a car that he drove to JFK Airport in a get-away attempt Monday evening, they say.

soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. kenneth

    well, the watch list is pretty broad. including citizens who havent done anything but have the wrong last name . or be from a country we happen to be at war this year! lol in fact most people on the watch list are law abiding citizens. I would venture to say most people haven't done a thing. so if a terror group is planning to switch to firearms, instead of there usual M.O. then with the number of Lawful citizens who are license to carry or live in open carry state. we wouldnt have to worry about a terrorist threat long. I love this country!!

    May 7, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
  2. judd

    To Bill Roach:

    You're on it now. That's okay, so am I.

    May 7, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Scott

    "Shahzad, who appears to have no criminal history, legally purchased a .9 mm gun, authorities say. The gun was found in a car that he drove to JFK Airport in a get-away attempt Monday evening, they say."

    ".9mm" is a very small caliber. It must have been a specialty gun; some sort of new terrorist weapon.

    Those clever terrorist and their small calibers.

    May 7, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jason

    This article is a bunch of alarmist dribble. The people on those watchlists have not been convicted of, or even arrested for any crime. Where is the due process in all of this?

    May 7, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jim D

    Opposing this proposal is ludicrous. I'm in the auto retail biz, and we are prohibited by Federal Law from selling a car to anyone on the list. Yes, we have to check each and every customer against that list and halt the transaction if the person appears on it. yet, they can buy firearms, just not a new or used car. ???????????????????

    May 7, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Dave

    'Shahzad, who appears to have no criminal history, legally purchased a .9 mm gun, authorities say. "

    If authorities say he bought a ".9mm", then they should be sent back to Elementary School. Or maybe invest in a desk ruler or tape measure.

    May 7, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
  7. just a question

    This might have been asked already, but I really didn't want to read all of the posts. What happened until innocent until proven guilty? Has there been a trial for anyone on the Watch List? And if a terrorist tries to buy a weapon and they come up as not being able to purchase one, won't that tip them off?

    May 7, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Kevin

    Why not also deny the rest of the bill of rights to people on the watch list. 1st amendment? Take it away (too bad if you make your living as a journalist). 4th amendment? Yup, that goes bye-bye too if you are on a list.

    Here is a great idea... If there are guys THAT dangerous on the list, arrest them and prosecute them! Why didn't anybody think of this before? Then the 2nd amendment issue becomes moot, because the will then be felons (and in prison).

    May 7, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Joedakota

    Every gun purchase from a federally licensed firearms dealer is call ed into a government agency before the sale goes through, so the mechanism already exist to check against a no sale list already exist. The problem is no one in the bureaucracy seems to have enough sense to assure the list is accurate. Another problem is how do you define who is a terrorist or not The foot hood killer had all indications of being capable of a terrorist attack, yet know one challenged him for fear of racial profiling and offending a Muslim. What is even more ludicrous is that you have a military base, with individuals trained for war, but no one had a gun handy to stop him.
    This article is what I call a prelude article. Leading up to only th AG can authorize a gun purchase buy anybody.

    There was a prelude article before the raid on the Branch Davidans,
    \The next think you know people will be accused of though crime for thinking about replacing the socialist with conservatives

    May 7, 2010 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse |
  10. AndyBest

    Terror watch list and the Department of Homeland Security is protecting America just like an expensive blanket makes you feel safe at night when you go to bed. It might feel good but it's not going to save you from a car bomb explosion.
    Proof is the clear failure of the Time Square bomb fiasco. America is clearly underestimating the resourcefulness of terrorists.

    May 8, 2010 at 9:30 am | Report abuse |
  11. Fragman

    So, how many of the 1119 people on the watch-list who managed to purchase a firearm used them to commit an terrorist act?

    Oh, and the Patriot Act does NOT apply when buying a car, that's a well known scam so the dealer can run your credit. The act ONLY applies if you are applying for a loan to buy the car. If you are buying cash, or using an equal trade, it does not apply to you. Nor does the dealer need your SSN.

    May 8, 2010 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
  12. Fragman

    Should clarify. I believe the dealer is required to REPORT the transaction if it is over a dollar amount, but the credit check that fires off the matching against the watchlist is not required unless you are financing through the dealer.

    May 8, 2010 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
  13. Don Montalvo

    Gun laws only help criminals.

    May 8, 2010 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
  14. hi

    well maybe if the U.S. wasn't so stubborn and banned those on the Terror Watch List from obtaining weapons, then maybe our country would be a bit safer. As far as I'm concerned, our national security is awful and I side with those who state that the U.S. government is getting lucky with terror attack busts. U.S. government...stop making things all about image and actually do what you're supposed to do. People who are on the Terror Watch List don't deserve to have rights. They deserve to be taken back to their country, or put in a cell.

    May 8, 2010 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
  15. LouisCipher777

    too bad those watch lists have no accountability, and if your name ends up on one, there isn't even anything effective you can do about it (unless you are a senator).

    people in this country still have rights, that do not and should not end because the government put your name on some list you don't even have the right to see.

    we still have a right to this thing called due process.

    May 8, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
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